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    My Mom the Janitor: How ‘Invisible’ Workers Keep Our Cities Clean

    By sharing her mother’s experiences as a cleaner, a Shenzhen writer shines a light on the lives of China’s janitors and custodians.

    Editor’s note: At the age of 52, Chunxiang, a migrant worker from the southern foothills of the Qinling Mountains in northwest China, was invited to live with her daughter Zhang Xiaoman in the southern tech hub of Shenzhen, Guangdong province. Since then, she has worked as a cleaner in shopping malls, government buildings, and high-class office buildings across the city.

    From her mother’s personal experience, Zhang, a former journalist, came to see that janitors and custodians, while essential to the daily maintenance and operation of a city, are often “invisible” members of society. In her book, “My Mother, Cleaning Up,” she records her mother’s life and work. The following is an excerpt:

    Shenzhen is a city known primarily for its efficiency and wealth. Public restrooms here are generally clean, creatively designed, and well-equipped; museums and libraries are spacious and brightly lit; and office buildings are sleek and spotless.

    Before my mother became a cleaner, I’d always taken the salubrity of both public spaces and my office for granted. I’d never thought to ask myself who made all this cleanliness and convenience possible.

    An immaculate toilet in three minutes max

    These days, not just anyone with a broom can become a cleaner. You might be surprised to learn that a cleaner needs as many as 30 tools to do their job to the standards required in a Shenzhen office building. In addition to the basic mop, bucket, and dustpan, the walls of a custodian’s utility room are usually lined with more than 20 different products. Cleaning also requires the use of modern appliances such as powerful vacuum cleaners, high-temperature steam cleaners, and dryers.

    The dark green bucket containing my mom’s work tools weighs almost 5 kilograms. Hauling this around for long periods has left her with a terrible pain in her right shoulder, especially when it rains, to the point that she often has trouble opening the glass door to the stairwell in her office building.

    At the beginning of each morning shift, she sprays and wipes down the restroom counters, mirrors, walls, and doorframes, removing stubborn stains with a scraper. Then, she pours disinfectant into each toilet bowl and starts scrubbing. Occasionally, she wears rubber gloves while she works to protect her hands, but she prefers not to, as she says they make her fingers less nimble. If she’s to finish all 24 toilets before 9 a.m., as required, she needs to clean one every three minutes.

    Over time, mold and bacteria can accumulate on toilet bowls. Mom needs to lift up the seat, squirt disinfectant around the rim, and scrub both inside and outside. Once she’s wiped them down with her rag, the toilets sparkle as though brand new. They are my mother’s “artworks.”

    Similarly vexing are the restroom garbage cans, where some people like to dump the contents of their teacups and food delivery containers. Leftovers, sodden tea leaves, and fruit peels mingle and decompose at the bottom of the trashcan, forming a putrid juice that leaks out whenever she changes the bag.

    For Mom, the worst thing is the amount of unfinished cups of milk tea she has to handle. The creamy liquid always seeps out, sticking to other trash and dripping onto the carpet. Milk tea cups are such a source of frustration that they’ve at times brought her to tears. She’s never once drunk the stuff. She fails to see the appeal — why do young people go so crazy for it, and yet still waste it? she asks.

    Don’t keep them waiting

    By nine in the morning, when white-collar workers arrive at their desks, cleaners are already halfway through their job for the day. In the hours that follow, they have to concentrate on avoiding complaints made by employees patrolling the building, as well as wiping down surfaces and cleaning up accidents.

    One day, around noon, Mom received a reprimand from her supervisor. Between 12:11 and 12:30 a.m., the building’s concierge had found messes in four different places, which he photographed and shared in the staff group chat. He also directly informed my mom’s manager.

    All of these messes were found in areas for which she was responsible, but they had been discovered after she had already left for her lunch break. It wasn’t her fault. That morning, she had worked until well after 11 a.m., when her break normally begins. She could hear someone inside a toilet stall playing videos on their cell phone, but every time she knocked, they ignored her. After three attempts, she gave up and left for lunch.

    The moment she arrived home, she saw the complaint that the restroom hadn’t been cleaned properly. Furious, she sent a voice message to the group chat: “Is it possible to stop someone from going to the toilet? A little water around the sink is inevitable. Just as I was about to clean the last stall, someone rushed inside while I had my back turned. What was I supposed to do, skip lunch and wait for them to finish?”

    On this occasion, her supervisor didn’t blame her. She merely said, “Don’t worry, I know you work hard.” This supervisor is a rotund woman in her 50s with a boisterous disposition and a bad temper. When cleaners fail in their duties, her typical response is to dock their wages. Though she hates receiving complaints from clients, she still stands up for her employees when they’re the subject of unfair allegations.

    In her three years as a cleaner in Shenzhen, my mom has figured out how to negotiate with her bosses in the group chat. Despite only having an elementary school education, my mother has gone from viewing her smartphone as useless for anything other than making calls to learning how to upload her COVID health codes, travel passes, and other ID documents. Now, she uses WeChat as a means to protect her rights at work. Whenever she finds herself in a sticky situation, she sends evidence to the group chat where her bosses can see it.

    After sharing her unfortunate work experience with me, she concludes, “So, the next time you’re in the company restroom and you hear the cleaner knocking on the door, you should hurry up. Don’t keep her waiting.”

    A place of respite

    Wary of receiving more complaints, my mom has had no choice but to compromise. When someone occupies a stall for a long while and doesn’t respond to her knocking, she now waits for them to come out before she begins cleaning.

    She sighs with lament. “What is the person in there doing when they’re supposedly on the clock? I pity whoever hired them.” I didn’t know how to explain to her why young people sometimes hide in the toilets at work for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. My own experience in the workplace has taught me that when your job is highly stressful and competitive, the restroom can be ... well, a place of respite.

    Toilet stalls are often the only place in the entire building where you can lock yourself away and that no one else can bother you. When a nine-to-fiver gets a dressing down from his or her boss, there’s no better place for them to recover their composure than the restroom. After a good cry, a true professional will wash their face and dutifully return to their desk. What’s more, there are some calls and texts that can only be replied to in the restroom. On countless occasions, my mom has overheard people booking appointments. She’s also heard people quietly introducing themselves, probably applying for another job.

    Directly communicating with the office workers would be a breach of the cleaners’ code of conduct, so Mom can only observe them in silence. The company whose offices she cleans employs people of all ages, but the younger ones stay the latest. Even on weekends, there are people working overtime.

    Hair constitutes the bulk of the detritus that my mom retrieves from underneath the workstations. The busier the worker, the more hair she finds. From under one woman’s desk, she often collects big tufts at a time.

    Mom regularly encounters the same young woman doing her makeup in the restroom. Perhaps this client manager at a finance company thinks of makeup as her secret weapon to pave a smoother career path. She often lays various brushes and other implements on a rolled-out sheet of toilet paper beside the sink. After completing her elaborate routine — from brushing her teeth to putting on her false eyelashes to drawing her eyebrows, and so on — she will often leave the counter flecked with products that my mom then has to wipe up. But this young woman has a warm personality and always acknowledges my mother’s hard work with a thank you. Eventually, my mom asked her, “Miss, once you’re done, could you throw away your garbage?” Since then, she’s always cleaned up after herself.

    Familiar strangers

    A cleaner’s performance is evaluated using a complicated and petty disciplinary system. Far from being limited to simple uniform requirements, the code of conduct dictates behavior, including facial expressions, gait, and posture when sitting or squatting. They must also abide by an etiquette guide that stipulates the correct decorum for working in different environments, from public spaces to office buildings to restrooms. Cleaners need to remember more than 100 rules by heart.

    When cleaning office buildings, janitors and custodians are not allowed to speak loudly, make calls, or play on their phones. One of my mom’s coworkers once got told off for watching short videos while she worked. Eager to avoid disciplinary measures, my mother has had to refuse many video call requests from her relatives back home.

    Depending on the time of day, cleaners must address the occupants of a building appropriately: Good morning; good afternoon; or hello, sir/madam. It makes me think of “The Truman Show” — the occupants my mother greets on a normal working day live in a parallel universe. They’re all strangers who will most likely never engage with her as an equal.

    It’s clearly forbidden to smoke in the office building, yet some people flout the rules. Too afraid to chastise the workers directly, concierges will instead get in touch with the cleaning companies, who in turn contact their district managers. The criticism trickles down the company ladder where it eventually makes life difficult for people like my mom. At least she has always dared to speak up for herself, so long as things don’t escalate into full-blown arguments.

    Initially, when people — especially men — used to smoke in the building, she would use diplomatic ways of getting them to stop. She’d address older men by the reverential term shifu and younger men by the flattering shuaige (literally “handsome guy”). In the stairwell, she’d often bump into the same wiry man in his 40s who’d puff away, all the while coughing up a lung. After seeing him a few times, she couldn’t help but go up and speak to him in her dialect. “Shifu, how much do you smoke? A pack a day?” Oh no, not that much, he replied. “I guess you’re not too addicted then.” She paused for a moment before adding, “Shifu, the management has complained that people are smoking in the stairwell. Look, there’s a big poster right here saying that smokers will be fined. How about you roll up the butts in a napkin or put them in a disposable cup when you’re done, and I’ll throw them out for you?” The man took the hint and has rarely appeared in the stairwell since.

    David Graeber remarks in his book “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” that, almost universally, the more apparent a person’s work benefits society, the less they are paid for it. This observation immediately made me think of my mom. Just think: In such a fast-paced city, how would people cope if there wasn’t someone like her to deal with the massive amount of garbage produced each day? Or, if that’s too abstract, simply imagine what would happen if your company restroom wasn’t cleaned for just one day.

    This article, translated by Lewis Wright, is an excerpt from the book “My Mother, Cleaning Up” by Zhang Xiaoman, published by Luminaire Books in 2023. It is republished here with permission.

    Editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: VCG)